Friday, July 02, 2010

Stories: Are You There God? It's me, Rebecca

The little boy slouched further down the back of the pew, sliding until his neck seemed to disappear into his tee-shirt. I don't want to, he whispered desperately to his mother, who said, Fine, and grabbed the hand of his younger, more pliable brother, leading him to the front of the small church to sit to listen to the story being told for the children. The boy left behind crouched down into the wooden pew, leaning as far back as he could to become one with the wood, hidden in the bench.  

Seated right behind him, too tall to lie down length-wise in the pew to hide myself, I nodded my approval. This was all a bit much, wasn't it?   

As the woman in the brightly colored dress started reading a story to the children gathered at the front of the church, the boy squirmed and wriggled, well-hidden and ignored. Having ditched my church-going ways a few years ago, I thought about the rational, positive, progressive points of the Episcopal church. They openly ordained gay leaders and welcomed all. Madeleine L'engle, one of my favorite writers, was Episcopalian and loved the liturgy. The church was 20 yards from the front door of the house where I was staying for two weeks.  

During the announcement time, a man stood up at the back of the church and asked us, if we cared at all about the environment, to check out, to see photos from the organization's recent gathering. If you're concerned about the oil spill and global warming, and, you know, want to save the planet, he added. A lady with long braids, big hips, and daring cleavage bounced around the aisle, her announcement excited and unintelligible. During the prayer time, people raised up names of those in pain and need they wanted to remember, and the visiting pastor asked for blessings and care for the animals affected by the oil spill in the gulf. This was definitely a northern California crowd.

Something was tugging at me. When the service started with a procession of the cross, some old, ancient part of my churched soul stirred. A low-church protestant, I had to follow along with the Episcopal high-church service by the bulletin, all those phrases to recite in unison: God is Goods and And Also with Yous.

The kids up front were engrossed in the pictures in the storybook reading of the 23rd Psalm, and I saw an arm in front of me shoot out from his hiding place. Grabbing a hymnal from the back of the pew before him, he pretended to be bored, flipping through the pages. You could almost hear him sigh and see him look at his pocket watch, as if he were an old man waiting outside the salon for his wife. His head cocked in curiosity when the church lady read from the story: Thou anointest my head with oil, she said, pointing to the illustration of two polar bears. Huh? said one little boy. Where'd a polar bear get oil? asked another. The boy hiding in the pew raised his head and scuttled to the edge of the bench, looking down the aisle at the group up front.  

The pastor called out for blessings, and the crazy lady with deep breast-baring cleavage dragged her husband to the front, (if you don't ask, you may miss out! her voice sang out) where she bounced from one foot to another, asking for traveling mercies for her husband's upcoming trip and a blessing for their wedding anniversary. Hearing it was another woman's birthday, the lady grabbed her and placed her in a squeeze between herself and her husband. The pastor gave the blessings for the coming year.

During story time for the adults, the pastor reflected on Luke 9: 51-62.  He spoke of centering, and his own story, when he had felt lost. Studying for his PhD, involved in the activism of the 60s, he said, I was doing everything I could to be good. And I realized that there was a dead feeling inside, that what was real and was truly me was dying, and if I didn't do something, I would die. One day, he said, I opened a book about pottery, and read this quote by John Middleton Murry: "For the good man to realize that it is better to be whole than to be good is to enter on a straight and narrow path to which his previous rectitude was flowery license."

What does it mean to be whole, versus being good? Years of church, Sunday school, bible study, youth group and Christian college courses, and I too am tired and dead inside from being good. But when I start to open myself to what it means to be whole, I feel that spark of life come back. I was shocked to find it sparked inside a church, but maybe that is right. If church is where I got bogged down by do-gooder-ness, perhaps that is where I needed to be reminded of the beauty of metaphor and story of Jesus's teachings, that he taught in stories. 

As the little boy leaned into the aisle for a better view, he gripped the edge of the pew, willing himself to stay in the spot he had claimed. Suddenly he was up and in quick, jerking, jogging steps rushed to the front of the church, nestling into his mother's arms, absorbed in the story. 

I leaned forward to take in the pastor's story, to be reminded of Jesus's stories, and the ongoing stories all around me. To wonder where polar bears would get oil with which to be anointed. To be reminded of people who live authentic lives of faith and questioning, who bounce to the beat of a different drum, who demand blessings and join hands to save the planet and each other. Stories that call us to justice, love and being whole, being who we are, my story different from yours.  


JJ said...


Christina said...

Thank you Rebecca.